Gang life continues to exist and the number of gang members is growing everyday. According to the website Helping Gang Youth, “There are approximately 24,500 gangs in the United States. There were estimated 750,000 gang members in the year 2000. The 2009 estimate is one million gang members with 147,000 of them currently incarcerated.” To help understand about why someone would become a gang member and a gang’s lifestyle I have interviewed gang expert and psychotherapist Lisa Taylor-Austin.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a Gang Expert and Licensed Professional Counselor. I have testified in criminal cases at the state and federal level across the United States for the last 13 years. As a psychotherapist I have provided counseling to gang members since 1988 in California, New York and Connecticut.”
What are some signs that someone is at risk in joining a gang?
“Youth are drawn to gangs for a myriad of reasons. Some join because they live in neighborhoods comprised of gangs and their friends are members, therefore, it is something that is the norm in that location. Often youth join for social reasons when there is a lack of social activities available within a community. Other youth are drawn to gangs because dysfunctional family issues push them to seek acceptance or love elsewhere.”
“The National Gang Center states, “The major risk factor domains are individual characteristics, family conditions, school experiences and performance, peer group influences, and the community context. Risk factors predictive of gang membership include prior and/or early involvement in delinquency, especially violence and alcohol/drug use; poor family management and problematic parent-child relations; low school attachment and achievement and negative labeling by teachers; association with aggressive peers and peers who engage in delinquency; and neighborhoods in which large numbers of youth are in trouble and in which drugs and firearms are readily available (Howell and Egley, 2005; see also Esbensen, 2000; Hill et al., 2001; Thornberry, 1998; Wyrick and Howell, 2004)”
Why does someone join a gang?
“People join gangs for perceived love, acceptance, feeling of family, and a place to belong, perceived respect and perceived protection. People can also be born into a gang. Some people are forced into a gang. The reasons people join gangs are varied as the people themselves.”
What are the consequences of being part of a gang?
“Living a gang life is very stressful. One has to constantly look over their shoulder. Trust usually does not exist. Death, loss, incarceration, post-traumatic-stress disorder, loss of family, loss of limbs, the possibility of being in a wheelchair (from gunshot) are all real possibilities.”
As a therapist how do you help someone break away from a gang lifestyle?
“A person has to want to break away from the gang lifestyle. This is not something a therapist or anyone else can impose upon another. In hybrid gangs many people have left gangs in a safe manner. It is important to know the type of gang one wants to leave and also the rank or the relationship the person has to that gang. Some people move away, other phase out by having a family or becoming legally employed. Some leaders retire. In other gangs like MS13, or La Eme it may not be possible to leave.”
What advice would you like to give to someone who is thinking about joining a gang or someone who is thinking about getting out of a gang life?
“To someone who is thinking of joining I would say look down the road: do you know anyone who has been in a gang for 20 years and never got arrested or had a close friend die? Are you ready for this type of life? What are your goals and aspirations? Is there something you would like to do that can bring you positive results?”
“To someone who wants to get out: My advice would be to talk to someone on the outside who know the gang and can advise you wisely on a strategy to get out. Each gang is different…. some will allow you to leave, some will allow you to phase out and others will kill you if you try to go. Plan wisely and carefully.”
Thank you Lisa Austin for the interview. If you would like more information about Lisa Austin check out her website at www.gangcolors.com.